Jerry Rice and Brandon Jacobs played role reversal this week.
Rice, the Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver who did his best work with the San Francisco 49ers, is currently an ESPN analyst who is usually reserved in his comments. But he stepped outside his normal boundaries on the air and called Jacobs "a little soft."
That is not a charge usually leveled at Jacobs, the Giants' 265-pound running back. But Jacobs, who often utters inflammatory or provocative comments whether or not that is his intention, was unusually diplomatic when asked at a news conference today for a response.
"I've grown up a San Francisco 49er fan," Jacobs said. "I've loved Jerry Rice, I still love Jerry Rice. I give him a lot of credit for the game being the way it is today. I have nothing negative to say about Jerry. If he feels that way, he feels that way. I betcha he won't tackle me."
Jacobs' quote elicited laughter from the assembled media and made for a good sound bite, but the more salient point is how eager and effective the current 49ers defense will be when attempting to tackle Jacobs when the Giants visit San Francisco Sunday for the NFC Championship Game.
The Giants' ability to run the ball will be a key factor in the game and go a long way in determining which team wins and advances to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
"Running the football is going to be a huge point in this game for both football teams," tackle David Diehl said. "You hate to continue to talk about it but those are the types of things that are the difference-changers in this game. The team that can control the line of scrimmage, the team that can run the ball, keep the other offense off the field … running the ball also does things to keep yourself in third-and-manageable downs. For us, that's going to be very important. You don't want to be on the road and be third-and-10, third-and-11-plus. (That's) where you let these guys attack and be able to get after Eli (Manning). That's going to be very important for us. We definitely have to be able to run the ball."
That will be a tremendous challenge, because the Giants' rushing attack and the 49ers' run defense could not be further apart statistically. When the regular season ended, the Giants were last in the NFL in rushing yards per game (89.2) and per carry (3.5). San Francisco, meanwhile, was first in rushing defense per game (77.3) and per attempt (3.5).
But those numbers will mean nothing when the teams take the field, where anything can happen. When the teams met in Candlestick Park on Nov. 13 – a 27-20 Niners victory – the Giants out-rushed the home team, 93-77 (though they averaged only 3.2 yards a carry). And that was without Ahmad Bradshaw, their leading rusher, who missed the game with a foot injury.
"Last time we played them, they were keeping two safeties back and playing a little bit more two-high," said Manning, who returned to practice today after missing yesterday's workout with a stomach bug. "If that's the case, we're going to have to run it. It's a team where, if you're not getting 10-yard runs, but let's at least get three or four-yard runs a pop and that way it at least sets up better third-down conditions. Their front four on third down in passing situations is very good. … We're just going to try to be consistent. Let's not have the negative runs. Last time we played them we were pretty good about that. Not losing yards on runs and just getting our three or four yards a pop and it at least keeps you in good management and a good rhythm."
The Giants' rushing attack was better late in the season, coinciding with the return of Bradshaw. They had a stretch where they ran for at least 100 yards in five of six games, including a season-high 172 yards in their 24-2 defeat of Atlanta in an NFC Wild Card Game two weeks ago.
If they can post that number in San Francisco, they will probably win. But doing so against such a stout run defense will be difficult.
The 49ers' defense is led by Justin Smith, who was a first-team AP All-Pro selection at tackle and a second-team All-Pro choice at end, the first player to ever be so honored. Isaac Sopoaga is rugged run-stopping nose tackle and Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are widely considered the NFL's finest inside linebacker duo.
"This is a tough group to do it against," Diehl said. "They've got great personnel, they've got great up-front seven. It's not that they're trying to trick you, they're not doing different things. What they do is they play sound, fundamental football and they play with great technique."
The 49ers were typically hard-hitting in their stirring 36-32 victory last week over New Orleans. On the Saints' first possession, safety Donte Whitner pulverized running back Pierre Thomas and forced a fumble that was recovered by Willis. It was a legal helmet-to-helmet hit, because Thomas was not a defenseless player – and it knocked Thomas out of the game.
Jacobs would welcome the 49ers trying a similar tactic with him.
"To get knocked out, that means they hit you on the head," Jacobs said. "I wish like hell one of them would try to hit me in my head. That means they're staying up, not trying to hit in the legs.
"I want one of those. That means they're staying high, they're not digging in the ground trying to make tackles at the shoestring."
Yes, Jacobs does welcome contact, which makes Rice's comment seem a bit curious. How can a 6-4 power back be labeled "soft?"
"I think it's just because you see this big, powerful man and if he's not running over somebody every snap than people are almost disappointed," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said. "Unfortunately, the people that he's going against are big, strong men, powerful men as well. I think once he gets going, as you've seen, I'm not sure there's many people that like to get in his way. It takes him, as it does any back, an opportunity to get his feet underneath him and get through the hole. But once he gets going he's really, and I mean this in a positive way, a freak of nature. To be that big and powerful and to run as fast as he does, there are not many people that have that combination. So when he is in the open space you see people shying out of the way. Until you get by the line of scrimmage – those guys are 300 plus pounds, they're bigger than he is too. Plus he hasn't had a chance to build up much momentum. But once he gets going he's a powerful guy."
"I think he's proven he's not a soft player," Diehl said. "We've seen the way he's able to run the ball, how tough he is as a competitor, you see guys not wanting to take him on. I think if Brandon had the opportunity to run in the open field, he'd get the best of Jerry Rice. That's in my opinion."
The Giants are confident they can run the ball successfully against the 49ers. Bradshaw led the Giants with 63 of the team's 95 rushing yards in the divisional round victory in Green Bay last week. Jacobs contributed 22 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that sealed the victory.
It could rain in San Francisco on Sunday, but even if it doesn't, the Candlestick Park field will likely be damp and slow, the kind of track that suits Jacobs.
"Every week I think I can come out and set a tone if the chance is given," Jacobs said. "We know they're a great football team. They have a great defense, the best in the league. We just have to go out and do the best we can."
"I think our guys recognize that they're a terrific group," Gilbride said. "I would be minimizing the quality of the secondary, which I think is excellent too, but they are an unbelievable front. They do a great job. I think our guys are looking forward to the challenge. We just say, 'Hey, if we're as good as we think we are then we're going to have an opportunity to prove it and we're going to prove it against an unbelievable defensive unit.' I think, to be quite candid, our guys are looking forward to it."